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IOWA CITY — Schematically, offenses at Oregon and Iowa are as different on the football field as the states are in geography.
Oregon's zone-read, quick-tempo offensive scheme is based on speed and the program has the uniform sizzle to match. Iowa's power offense football has a foundation rooted in brute physicality and takes an understated public approach. Despite their differences, the teams face similar challenges.
Without a ton of high-level prospects within their borders, both teams are scavengers for players. Oregon (27th in population) has 13 recruits in the 2016 class designated as either three stars or four stars by Rivals, and only four are committed to the Ducks. Iowa (30th in population) boasts 10 three- or four-star Rivals 2016 recruits inside the state and three have picked the Hawkeyes.
Oregon has enjoyed high-level success with at least 11 wins a year from 2010-2014. The Ducks played for the national title in 2010 and 2014 but lost both games. Entering the 2015 season, Iowa had built a modest 34-30 record over the previous five years, and Iowa's staff was searching for ways to improve.
Offensive line coach Brian Ferentz played for the Hawkeyes alongside Erik Chinander, who's now Oregon's linebackers coach. Ducks defensive line coach Ron Aiken was an assistant under Kirk Ferentz from 1999-2006.
Chinander was an Iowa walk-on who received Iowa's Offensive Team Leader Award after his 2002 season. So Brian Ferentz called Oregon coaches in January and traveled to Eugene to meet with Chinander, offensive line coach Steve Gray among others.
'They were very accommodating, they let me come out,' Brian Ferentz told The Gazette in August. 'I wanted to find out a little bit about how they practiced.'
'As I was leaving (former Oregon offensive coordinator, now Central Florida head coach) Scott Frost asks me, 'Do you want to sit down and talk about football?' Brian Ferentz recalled. 'And I said, 'Scott, I'd love to talk a little bit of football but to be honest with you, I'm more interested in how you guys practice. How you guys do things because we're different. We're so different.''
Oregon holds morning football practice, and after Brian Ferentz's visit, Iowa elected to make the change as well. The visit was less about football and more about practice.
Iowa won't employ most of Oregon's schemes, and vice versa. But the more Brian Ferentz thought about the Ducks, the more he realized Iowa and Oregon face comparable obstacles.
'I'm sitting on the airplane that night — and you've got plenty of time to think when you're flying back from Oregon — and I'm sitting there and I'm thinking to myself and it just kind of dawned on me. Look at how they recruit,' Brian Ferentz said. 'Oregon has a hard time, believe it or not, and those guys would be the first ones to tell you, I don't think they get enough credit honestly ... a big part of their recruiting base is southern California. They won't beat USC and UCLA for kids. You just don't.
'What you see is they can get fast guys. A little undersized because all the big fast guys from L.A. go to UCLA or USC. All the little fast guys go to Oregon or Cal. So they take all these little fast guys and they put them out in space and they sling the ball out to them. Those guys make a lot of yards or they create space by spreading the field and doing some of the zone read stuff.'
While the systems are different, their recruiting approach is similar. Oregon ventures into southern California; Iowa branches into Chicago and Ohio. That's when Brian Ferentz offered up Iowa's recruiting and football philosophy in contrast.
'What's our recruiting base? Where can we recruit?' Ferentz asked. 'We'll recruit our tail off, but if we don't have a relationship, it would be difficult for us to beat (Ohio State for a running back in Chicago). It doesn't mean we won't try, it just means it's hard.
'We can get tight ends. We might go head-to-head with one of those schools for a tight end (or a lineman) in Chicago. But we can get bigger guys. We can get more physical guys. So you're going to see us a lot of times line up with two tight ends in the game. Three tight ends in the game. A fullback. Offensive linemen. We're going to play a defense that allows us to play blocks and try to be physical with people because it suits our personnel. That's what we can go get.
'The frustrating thing sometimes from the fans' perspective is why don't you just spread out and do what Indiana does? Well, I have a lot of respect for what Indiana does, but we're not built like Indiana. I think a lot if we're going to be successful, we need to embrace what we are and get good at it.'
Ferentz's trip to Oregon was one of many taken by Iowa coaches this off-season. Tight ends coach LeVar Woods met with Florida State tight ends coach Tim Brewster. Iowa's defensive staff traveled to Arkansas. Like Brian Ferentz's trip to Oregon, all helped reshape the Iowa football program in 2015. They also proved beneficial toward helping the No. 5-ranked Hawkeyes qualify for the Rose Bowl.
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